Leadership Theories

I present eight leadership theories here:

1) Great Man
2) Trait
3) Transactional
4) Situational
5) Contingency
6) Participative
7) Behavioral
8) Transformational

If you asked me which leadership theory is my favorite, I would tell you all of them – except the first three.

Why? Because the last five theories that I present here make perfect sense to me – plus, when you combine them (they are complimentary) and learn from them, you can potentially become an extremely effective leader.

Read on and be the judge …

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1) Great Man Leadership Theories

These theories come from the study of people who were already famous leaders.

Most of the leaders studied were men and leadership was thought of as a male quality – hence: the “Great Man” theory (gender issues were not a concern then).

These theories represent the leaders as heroic, mythic, and destined to rise to the occasion when there was a need.

These theories also assume that leaders are born, not made.

2) Trait Leadership Theories

These leadership theories come from the study of traits (particular personality characteristics) shared by leaders - here; traits have nothing to do with physical attributes.

These theories assume that some traits are better suited for leadership than others and argue that great leaders have the right mix of combined traits.

These theories also assume that leaders are born - they inherit certain traits that make them better suited for leadership roles.

3) Transactional Leadership Theories

These theories - also known as management theories - concentrate on supervision, organization and group performance.

These theories assume that:

  • People are motivated by reward and punishment - hence, these theories base leadership on a system of rewards and punishments: when employees are successful, they are rewarded; when they fail, they are punished; when they perform as expected, they don’t need special attention (they are ignored)
  • Social systems work best with a clear chain of command - the transactional leader must build clear structures

    Transactional leadership asserts that when people have agreed to do a job in exchange for a salary and other benefits, a part of the deal is that they cede all authority to their manager (and to the company) - and the prime purpose of a subordinate is to do what their manager tells them to do.

    In comparison, if Transformational Leadership has a selling style (see below) – Transactional Leadership has a telling style.

    4) Situational Leadership Theories

    These theories state that the follower’s behavior determines the leader’s behavior - the more the leader can adapt her behavior to the follower’s needs, the more effective the leader’s attempts to influence will be (in this sense, the leader must be follower-driven).

    Hence, situational leadership is not as much about leadership as it is about meeting follower’s needs.

    The two factors to consider about your follower are:

  • Ability = her level of knowledge, experience and skill
  • Willingness = her level of confidence, commitment, and motivation

    5) Contingency Leadership Theories

    These theories assert that there is no one best way of leading, no leadership style is the best in all circumstances, a leadership approach that is successful in some situations may not be helpful in others - on the contrary, success depends on different variables, including:

  • The leader’s style
  • Qualities of the followers
  • Characteristics of the situation

    Both Contingency Theories and Situational Theories emphasize that there is no one unique way of leading, but the main difference between the two is the following:

    Situational theory states that the leader must adapt her behavior according to the follower’s needs – whereas contingency theory includes a more extensive view that embraces other variables related to the environment.

    6) Participative Leadership Theories

    These leadership theories insist that the best leadership style seeks input, participation and contribution from group members such as subordinates, peers, superiors and other stakeholders such as suppliers and clients (internal or external).

    The leader however, retains the right to allow the input of others - how much other people can influence may vary on the manager’s assessment of the situation, convictions, and values.

    These theories assert the following:
    Participation in decision-making - when done well - can potentially improve the quality of the decisionParticipation in decision-making enhances the understanding - the logic behind the final decision - by those who will execute the decisionParticipation in decision-making increases the social commitment to one another

    Keep in mind though that asking for participation and then totally ignoring it can be extremely counterproductive.

    7) Behavioral Leadership Theories

    These leadership theories focus on what leaders actually do (on the actions of leaders) - they do not focus on inborn capabilities, mental traits, or particular personality characteristics.

    They also assert that if leadership is observable and learnable behavior, other people aspiring to become leaders can learn to behave in the same way (leaders are made, not born).

    These theories have opened the doors for leadership development, where anyone aiming to grow as a leader can learn to do so.

    8) Transformational Leadership Theories

    These theories – also known as relationship theories – focus on the relationships between leaders and followers.

    These theories assume that …

  • Leaders will have followers – and will get things done through them – if they inspire them
  • The leader with a clear and compelling vision - and passion - can inspire people to attain noble heights
  • The leader who wants to inspire people, must help them to see the importance and the higher good of a task – the task that the leader wants people to perform
  • Transformational leaders have high ethical and moral standards – leader’s visibility, integrity, and trust are key ingredients in transformational leadership (the transformational leader is a clear and transparent role-model whom might be charismatic, but never narcissistic)

    Transformational leaders are focused on the employees’ performance, but they also want each individual to fulfill her potential – in this sense, people working for a transformational leader may live through a rewarding experience.

    Transformational leaders – as the name implies – seek to transform.

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    To learn about the skills you need to manage the performance of your direct reports, go to my Management Skills page.

    To learn about the skills you need to lead the performance of your entire organization, go to my Leadership Skills page.

    To learn about other useful skills, go to my More Skills page.

    If you would like information beyond these leadership theories, please click on this link.

    You will find "Leader Newsletter" very practical & useful too.
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